Amendment to the Coroners Act
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Media Reporting and Suicide: From Goethe to Mozart – how to make sense of suicide reporting in New Zealand

The recent amendments to the Coroners Act in July 2016 have once again increased discussions about whether we should be talking about suicide more publicly in the media.

There has been a definite divide between those who believe we should not talk about suicide more in the media and those who believe we should. Those who believe we shouldn’t are concerned about suicide contagion – that writing or talking about suicide in media will influence other vulnerable people to also engage in suicidal behaviour. Their goal is to prevent further suicides. The members of this camp are often academics and researchers who are aware of the research evidence linking media reporting with a subsequent increase in suicidal behaviour. In particular international studies have found an increase in suicidal behaviour by a particular method or at a particular location as depicted in media reports.

Those who believe we should be talking more about suicide more have tended to be the bereaved families – those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Recent headlines indicate that people in this camp feel they are being silenced when they want to talk or celebrate stories about loved ones using media. One bereaved mother says she felt her son’s death was a “dirty little secret” from the moment they could not state that he died by suicide in the death notices in the newspaper. Bereaved families often want to speak out about the tragedy that has impacted their family – their goal is to prevent further deaths by suicide.

Both camps are divided yet they both have the same goal – to prevent further deaths by suicide. So how do we make sense of all this? What is and is not allowed when reporting suicide in New Zealand? And should we be doing it at all?

There are hundreds of research studies pointing to the effect of contagion after news-paper print about suicide, called the Werther effect after a novel written by Goethe in the 1700s. The hero of the story shot himself leading to multiple readers also dying by shooting and leading to the book being banned. Given the evidence, countries around the world have created guidelines for the media to ensure safe and responsible media reporting about suicide. The most recent New Zealand media guidelines were developed in 2011, a collaborative effort between news media and mental health professionals. These guidelines use a traffic light approach to suicide and the media breaking issues down into:

  • DO these things
  • THINK about these things
  • DON’T do these things

(http://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/reporting-suicide-a-resource-for-media-dec2011.pdf)

Some examples of these include:

  • DO explore risk factors associated with a suicide
  • DO report suicide in a straightforward manner providing facts and concise information
  • THINK about which photos you use, how you use them and where you place them
  • THINK about the justification for your story
  • DON’T simplify the cause of death eg bullying, as suicide has complex multiple causes
  • DON’T specific in detail the method or location of suicide

The Amendment to the Coroners Act (2016) has a bearing on these guidelines and it is now recommended that the 2011 guidelines be read in conjunction with the recent legislative changes.
Current restrictions allow:

  • Being able to call a self inflicted death a “suspected suicide”
  • Being able to call a self inflicted death a suicide if the coroner has completed a certificate of findings that the death was a suicide
  • Current restrictions prohibit from making “public” (ie news reports and other media including social media):
  • The method or suspected method of a self-inflicted death
  • Any detail about location of death that suggests the method
  • A description of the death as a suicide

A change under the new legislation is the appointment of a Suicide and Media Expert panel that the Chief Coroner can consult when media make applications for exemptions to the above. The panel consists of four experts with collective expertise in suicide prevention, Maori youth suicide, tikanga Maori and media. The members of the panel are yet to be made public.

So how do we make sense of all this? The bottom line is that it is ok to talk about suicide in media as long as the guidelines above are adhered to. Suicide is a public health issue and it should be talked about, discussed and explored. But it’s the way suicide is talked about that is key and vital that media guidelines are followed. Whilst there is limited evidence to suggest positive benefits associated with media reports of suicide deaths, there are limited indications that stories which focus on the impact of suicide on those around them and personal stories about managing suicidality could have benefits. This is called the Papageno effect (named after a character in Mozart’s opera the Magic Flute) where the main character loses love and plans suicide. Three boys remind him that there are alternatives to dying, that there is hope. Such stories might focus on those who were considering suicide but chose another option (to live) and outline how they did it. It has also been suggested that by using media to tell stories that are inspirational, strength focused and focused on help seeking, others may be better equipped to have a conversation with a suicidal other or with a bereaved other.

Where does this leave bereaved families who want to tell their stories? Basically there is no evidence to suggest negative outcomes for bereaved families speaking to media about the impact of suicide. But it has been recommended that there is a need for caution, as those who are bereaved may also be vulnerable and at risk of suicidality themselves and it has been suggested that outcomes may be better for those bereaved families when media coverage is limited or absent.

Studies with family members bereaved by suicide found that they generally initiated contact with media in a desire to prevent further suicides occurring but usually it is the media who makes contact with them in the first place. Bereaved people reported that their views were not always treated with respect by the media and they had to learn to say no to media requests. Bereaved families often felt ill equipped to deal with the media and had not received any information, support or preparation in talking to the media about suicide.

Once again, it can be summarised as – it is ok for media to talk to those bereaved by suicide and tell their stories. But bereaved families suggest that media professionals do their research first and have some awareness of grief and loss and sensitivity around the issue of suicide as well as showing cultural respect. Whilst resources informing the media how to deal with bereaved families are recommended, it has also been suggested that there is a need for resources informing bereaved families how to make informed choices about working with the media and tips about how to do so.

Both media and those bereaved by suicide suggest an informed support person sitting with the bereaved person when they are being interviewed can also be really useful. This person can help the bereaved understand the role and motivation of the media.

It is clear that we can’t keep silent about suicide. It is occurring and in increasingly higher numbers – and not only in New Zealand. But when it is reported, it needs reporting in an informed manner and adhering to media guidelines. Both media and bereaved also need information and support to understand their motivations and the potential impact of any reporting. If suicide is going to be reported, we need more Mozart and less Goethe!

Resources

- Sandra Palmer, CPRS Manager and Suicide and Media Expert Panel Member